In mid December 1999 Ecie and I, (50 ish) together with our youngest son Joseph (22) flew to Calcutta. For the olds, it was 27 years since we'd last inhaled the unforgettable taste of hot urine on steaming sidewalks. The invigorating taxi ride from the airport brought back all the excitement of life on the sub continent, and when we were dropped outside the (full) YMCA, my flaccid backpack-carrying muscles flexed for a traipse around the old empire.An hour or two later we lay under a noisy fan in a tiny room with no windows, listening to the sounds of India. It was just like I'd never left.
Since the trains are always booked, it is essential to find the secret office where the tourist quota is kept. We did, due entirely to the kindness of two Taiwanese we'd met in the Bangkok airport: the chinese chat in the seats behind us was broken by the distinct phrase "Om mani padme hung"; Ecie and I looked at each other, and turned around to stare the couple, approximately our age. Of course, they stopped talking. "We heard "om mani padme hung", I said, and it turned out they were also going to the teachings. We took the train together: chai (milk tea) still comes in clay cups each station, every acre of precious land is even more carefully cultivated, every atom of dust still hangs in the air until you can look at the sun at midday; and it is white. Alongside the tracks, every plastic item discarded lasts forever: endlessly turned over by yet another search for something useful. Of all the lasting images of India, black water flowing through strewn plastic rubbish and toilets blocked with piles of otherworldly shit are up there in the top five.
Bodhgaya is a little town in one of the poorest states in India. There's a lot of talk of bandits. In the summer, it is very hot (like, 35 to 45 C) In the winter, it is just right, and when the Dalai Lama comes to give teachings, the population suddenly swells by (this time) around 10,000. We arrived at night, and as our baggage dropped on the floor in the little guesthouse, the three of us had one thought: "mahabodhi". We joined the throngs of murmuring Tibetans to enter a world simultaneously alien and yet completely comfortable. The stupa itself is flood lit at night, which is impressive enough, but on top of that, there were thousands of candles lit all around the grounds. There is an upper /outer path of marble, just inside the perimeter fence, it takes about 10 -15 minutes to circumambulate the whole site, and you can keep your shoes on. Dropping down the stairs, there is a middle path and walking right up to the stupa (mahabodhi temple) there is a "close" path.
The stupa is around 160 feet high, so walking around the base is very cool. You can also go inside. We did all that, the first night, along with hundreds of others. Drugs, meditation or movies can open mental doors, and so too can exceptional places. The spot where Buddha sat and made it certainly qualifies. It was a totally magical night. I was instantly fascinated with the whole Mahabodhi stupa/temple site. It's undergoing a real revival at present. For the next ten days, there was nothing to do but attend teachings, or wander around the stupa. We didn't talk to anyone much at the teaching tent, sat in a section where we were unknown, and spent every spare second in the stupa grounds. I even got up early and went and did my morning practice in there. Also bought a book on the history, read it twice, and will add to the existing web pages about it soon. Didn't get out the camera until after the teachings finished. There was a big all nighter 31 Dec that Ecie and Joseph stayed up for under the Bodhi tree, so they started the New Year with all kinds of virtuous company and aspirations. I went to bed early, but did get up and do my practice there the next morning.
I was sitting near some prostrating monks and a passing tea monk gave me a cupful to drink. So the first thing to come inside the body for the new millenium was a gift, which was very nice. In the mid eighties, when HH Dalai lama gave kalachakra at this little place, I was told 100,000 came, and there were no toilets. Disease gets underway pretty fast like that. They burned the bodies of the daily dead on the banks of the river. Bad feeling after that, nothing for 14 years. Then, 3 years ago, the annual teachings started again. Infinitely better organised (by the Maitreya Project, who are building a 500 foot statue) Banks of public toilets. A tent to house 10,000 (I'm not exaggerating).
There were about 1,000 to 1,500 westerners (including Asians/Chinese), around 9,000 Tibetans (quite a few who had come, without any papers, all the way from Tibet) and a handful of Indians. It was SO GOOD. Simultaneous translations broadcast via FM into several languages while he talked. We lounged with the (mostly) newbies, (so we could be sloppy sitters): about 800 western people in a little front square of this gigantic tent, sharing food and earphones. 8,000 sardined tibetans directly behind (monks first, then families) The chosen ones (of all races) sat in the front tent (holding maybe another 1200) with HH and all the other big guns. No slacking off in there! He was teaching Shantideva, so it was pretty heavenly for me. Every verse so familiar, yet fresh with a subtly different translation and interpretation. In the grounds of the stupa, there are a couple of hundred prostration boards scattered around the place, and these are free to use if unoccupied. For me, possibly the biggest and most welcome change after 27 years was to see western practitioners totally accepted. There was always some sweaty white person throwing themselves on the boards in amongst the Tibetans, and they didn't attract a second glance. That was true all through India: no one looks at you any more, and anonymity is bliss, if you've known the opposite.30 years ago, wherever I went, there was always a circle of curious Indians asking questions. At that time, some developed quite interesting techniques to deal with this, such as a kiwi girl who kept a handbag on a chain, which she used to whirl around her head....
When HH left, the town emptied of beggars and rickshaws, as well as Tibetans and other foreigners. We went on a one day tour to the ruins of Nalanda, (get lost in lots of red bricks and grass) and also to Vultures Peak, (very much like you want it to be: steep, craggy, misty, wild) where the accompanying lama taught on emptiness. Another day we visited the mahakala caves, which was like being back in Tibet: ancient, timeless. It was great to just *sit* for a while in a little room tacked on the side of the cliff containing a double life size buddha, and enough concrete floor for a few pilgrims to get cold bottoms on.
Then we took a 45-hour train ride as the major ingredient in the trip to Dharamsala. It would be good to come up with a few funny sentences, that's a long time to spend on a train. But a bit too much like work to want to write about. We went there to look up some old friends. Sally now is the director of the Tushita Retreat centre, in the foothills of those really BIG Mountains. The plains of India just stop when they get to the Himalayas. It is impossible to capture the effect on film. The plains are limitless, like the Pacific Ocean. How could there be an end to the everlasting flat, disappearing off into infinite white? Yet the mountains just rise up, and up, and up. It's as if someone just grabbed your carpet and lifted one end. I came here 30 years ago too, but now nothing man made is recognisable from then, apart from the stupa and the old hotel. There is a building boom on in the whole area. Dharamsala is a little way up. Higher again, Mi-cloud-ganj (well, that's how you say it, where HH Dalai Lama lives). Above that again, Tushita. There isn't really any flat ground. Everything is perched on ridges, or stapled to the side of steep slopes. Precarious is an unavoidable adjective, applicable to everything.
One day I walked further up to try and find the stupa built for an old friend, who had lived here quite a few years in the seventies. It was a great walk. Straight up for 3 hours. Walk 10 minutes, stop 2 or 3. It's a famous spot (Triund), with a spectacular view, about a 4 thousand-foot climb, up to just under 10. You are rewarded by getting to this saddle, so you can see into the next "valley" It's in quotes, because it's so big, the word just doesn't seem right. The bottom of the one single slope you can see is maybe 5 or 6 thousand feet, the top maybe 16 or more. I went further, until my nose was bleeding and my heart was pounding alarmingly. Since there was no one else around, I collapsed on a granite boulder and listened to the prayer flags in the breeze, and struggled seriously not to hyperventilate. Good place to be alone, but I couldn't find the stupa.
The Karmapa had arrived in Dharamsala about the same time as us. Once we were convinced the rumors were true, I was consumed with a desire to meet him again (went to his enthronement in Tibet 7 years ago). Sally has a large staff of Tibetans at the retreat centre, and the manager was kind enough to help me, so before long we actually had an appointment for the next day. I was so excited I couldn't sleep! Unfortunately, during the intervening 24 hours, the rest of the world found out, and arrived. The Indian security totally freaked out. Our last hours were spent hovering in the grounds, as he lunched with the Dalai Lama, and our taxi waited, bags loaded. If we missed the train, we'd miss the plane back to New Zealand. He returned 10 minutes prior to our deadline, but an attendant came to explain most apologetically that the Indian guards wouldn't let anyone in today. If we could come back later? I've spent a bit of time since then, seeing how I could have handled the proceeding days differently. "If only" is a great mantra for maintaining suffering. Now we're back in the land of the perfect summer, where the sky is perfectly blue, the supermarket is perfectly full of food and perfectly empty of people, and the toilets are perfectly clean. Perfectly letting go doesn't seem any easier, however.
Just kill this window to get at the photos